On the second day of the invasion of Iraq, U.S. commandos seized two Iraqi offshore oil terminals in the Persian Gulf, capturing their defenders without a fight. "Swooping silently out of the Persian Gulf night," exulted James Dao of The New York Times, Navy SEALs claimed "a bloodless victory in the battle for Iraq's vast oil empire."
Dao's dramatic turn of phrase revealed more about the administration's plans for Iraq than almost every other report from the battlefield. While American forces turned a blind eye to the looting of Iraq's archeological treasures, they moved quickly to gain control over oilfields, refineries, and pipelines. Even before Iraqi resistance had been squelched, top U.S. officials were boasting that Iraq's oil infrastructure was safely in American hands.
Oil had nothing to do with Washington's motives for the invasion, we were told. "The only interest the United States has in the region is furthering the cause of peace and stability, not in [Iraq's] ability to generate oil," said press secretary Ari Fleischer in late 2002. But at a January briefing, an unnamed "senior Defense official" revealed that Gen. Tommy Franks and his staff "have crafted strategies that will allow us to secure and protect those fields as rapidly as possible in order to preserve those prior to destruction, as opposed to having to go in and clean them up after."
When pressed, the "senior Defense official" (presumably Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz) claimed that these fields would be protected so as to benefit the Iraqi people "at some point in the future." Other officials spoke of holding the fields "in trust" for the Iraqis. Nonetheless, the White House has talked with U.S. energy companies about assuming a major role in the postconflict development of Iraq's mammoth reserves.